How releasing India’s military files beyond new avenues of research will bring benefits

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Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement that war records will be archived and released every 25 years is indeed a welcome move. According to the latest announcement, responsibility for the release of records rests with the Department of History of the Department of Defense (MoD). The previous policy was clearly inadequate. Despite previous efforts to release material recommended by committees such as the report of the NN Vohra Committee and the report of the Kargil Review Committee headed by K Subrahmanyam, there has been no progress. There are several reasons to welcome this move by the Modi government. The propensity to politicize military and national security challenges is a curse on India. In addition, past governments have been cautious and resistant to de-classification because of the alleged negative national security impact. National security was often used as a disappointment and tended to be the leitmotif to prevent a coherent declassification policy. The claim that India is still actively involved in disputes with China and Pakistan, which have yet to be settled and therefore that secrecy should regulate the classification, has hampered openness. The de-classification will allow for a more objective assessment of India’s military history after independence and help policymakers make more informed decisions about policies related to the country’s military security. A more liberalized declassification system will also help depoliticize military events, particularly the wars that India has waged. Several democratic countries have introduced and are currently tracking the automatic release of official records, as shown in Table 1 below, although they are different.

Table 1

country Declassification period
United States of America 25-year rule (automatic declassification)
United Kingdom 20-year rule
Israel 30-year rule

Sources: “Chapter 4: Declassification and Regrading”, Federation of American Scientists, Washington DC, “The 20 Year Rule”, The National Archives, London, Louise Fischer, 8ththe International Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents, European Interuniversity Press, p. 78.

Before the latest announcement, which has yet to crystallize in actual changes, official war stories were commissioned in India, the only way to determine what exactly happened. All wars since 1947 have an official story, or something close to official reports like the report of the Kargil Review Committee, which are publicly available. The Sino-Indian border war of 1962 also has an official history, but remains the only exception to the downgrading. The Henderson Brooks Report, which examined the debacle of the 1962 war, is yet to be released; although the first part is available online, published by Australian author and journalist Neville Maxwell, who has published a controversial revisionist analysis of the conflict. In addition, the official Indian military stories were generally operational stories.

Aside from official stories, other publicly available sources have included ego accounts and memoirs. Oral testimonies have also helped fill gaps in the public understanding of past conflicts. However, these sources of information remain insufficient. In addition, although they are objective, official stories, while generally based on classified sources, are dry appraisals, which makes them insufficient for a fuller understanding of what exactly happened and how a conflict began and developed. The wars of 1947-48, 1965 and 1971 against Pakistan and the Sino-Indian War of 1962 have an official history, but they lack independent historical and rigorous analysis. In addition, the only way to understand decisions prior to and during a conflict is through a clear downgrading of documents, notes and communiques between officials and decision-makers. All the more, the public is enriched with diverse historical interpretations of the conflicts in which India was involved. While history generally does not teach lessons, and particularly military history does not teach the public or policy-makers lessons, at best it can provide critical insightful value. It will give Indians a sense of why they are on the state of India’s relations with China and Pakistan, and what went right and wrong in India’s conflicts with those two countries.

Aside from official stories, other publicly available sources included first-person accounts and memoirs. Oral testimonies have also helped fill gaps in the public understanding of past conflicts

Beyond archive research

Aside from the release of material for archive research, there are other benefits to announcing the release. Let us consider military reforms in India’s higher defense administration and organization. Every historian and scholar would like to know what internal and inter-service discussions took place on defense reforms over the last 25 years. While the importance of higher defense reforms may seem obvious today, as there is ongoing visible and public debates on the subject. However, declassified archive sources are the surest way to understand why defense reforms are stillborn or absent by exposing the pressures, pressures, lack of leadership, foresight and risk aversion that have prevented change. Interviews by academics with retired military officials or key bureaucratic officials can only partially fill our understanding of why senior defense remains compromised despite the Modi government’s decision to establish the post of Chief of Defense Staff (CDS). Indeed, de-classification will allow scientific studies on senior defense organizations, defense procurement, military intelligence studies, armed forces recruitment standards and priorities, military personnel issues, training, and so on. Archival material will allow for more credible, richer and more thorough scientific analysis in these areas.

In general, all wars that have been fought since Indian independence in 1947 to the present day have been largely written by historians or experts who at some point served in the Indian armed forces. While their contributions are important and substantial, their benefits from having access to a wide range of ex-military and partial service members of the military are a key reason for their publication on military affairs.

The study and writing of military history in a democratic society cannot be the exclusive monopoly and domain of experts who have served in the armed forces or officers from the uniformed services. Civil scholars who have no military experience must grapple with all issues related to the three services and India’s wars

The study and writing of military history in a democratic society cannot be the exclusive monopoly and domain of experts who have served in the armed forces or officers from the uniformed services. Civil scholars who have no military experience must grapple with all issues surrounding the three services and India’s wars. There are a number of notable non-military historians outside India who have made significant contributions to military history, such as John Keegan, Lawrence Freedman, and Richard Overy, to name a few; and there is no reason why Indians could not emulate them. Military service is not a prerequisite for studying military history. More than officers on duty or former officers, civilians have to break down their inhibitions when it comes to topics related to the history of science and the military. Now that the government decides to pursue a policy of declassification, civilian scientists will have access to released military-related material. Consequently, their contributions in this field will be for the better and hopefully Indian academic institutions will be able to do justice to military history.

Now that the government decides to pursue a policy of declassification, civilian scientists will have access to released military-related material. Consequently, their contributions in this field will be for the better and hopefully Indian academic institutions will be able to do justice to military history.

However, many challenges remain, the most important of which is to clearly articulate the types of products that could emerge from this initiative and how the structures and processes to manage them will be organized. A new post in DG Armed Forces History will be essential. A Joint Secretary may not be well placed to lead this initiative and committees only lead to dead ends. Histories must be professionally commissioned, controlled and edited until the Indian armed forces have the opportunity to research and write with authority.

The government has made a good start, but it shouldn’t stop there as there is still a lot of work to be done to move from India’s archaic system of declassification to a contemporary one.



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